Reading, Writing, And History


The struggle for power, of course, did not end when the war ended, which is why Mr. Nichols carries his book through to 1877 instead of stopping at 1865. That odd chain of events which is spoken of as “reconstruction” involved reconstruction of the nation, not just of the South. Andrew Johnson proved unable to wield the power that Lincoln had exercised. The party zealots took it away from him. The southern states were transformed, not merely because carpetbag governments indulged in riotous extravagance and created an immense burden of debt, but also because their social and economic functions were permanently broadened. The landed elite had lost control, and the idea of state responsibility for education and welfare was introduced into the South.

Hand in hand with this went a similar transformation in the North, and as Mr. Nichols remarks, “a large degree of power was in process of transfer from the government to the leaders of the growing business world.” In the North as well as in the South this was accompanied by distressing scenes of corruption and waste. The redistribution of power, creating first a new political power and second a nonpolitical power which controlled the dominant party organization, kept on working; and finally, as the unhappy Grant administration drew toward a close, a popular revolt began against the generally corrupt alliance between these two powers. The broad compromise which accompanied the advent of the Hayes administration was the symbol of this revolt. Business elements remained dominant, but at least a measure of political influence returned to the reconstructed South.

What, altogether, had been going on? Mr. Nichols puts it this way:

For more than twenty years the American nation had been in the throes of changing its political leadership. In the midforties, the Democratic party, dominated by its Southern leaders, had been in control. This party wanted government to be strong and rambunctious in foreign affairs, truculent toward European powers. But at home it prescribed a policy of inaction, of hands off. Little was to be undertaken and a minimum spent. Such a government, however, was not in step with the times. The great continent and the restless mobile population produced a combination of forces which dictated action, and any government which refused to respond was doomed. The Democratic party under Southern domination felt itself firmly enough established to defy the spirit of the times. The result was disastrous.

Yet the realignment, which resulted in a fearfully expensive war, was not permanent. The end of the reconstruction era “left the issue of who was to control still undetermined.” Never since has there been a new power with greater strength than the one which held sway during the pre-Civil War generation. The elements which contested for such high stakes in the war and postwar years are still present. Politics today still reflects the power struggle.

The Ultimate Destiny

These, of course, are backward glances; things seen from the long perspective, when the dominant forces at work underneath day-to-day crosscurrents and turbulences at last become clear. It is interesting to turn back to see how matters looked, to a foreign observer, at the moment when things were still in a state of flux and when the nation was still groping uncertainly to lay hold on its destiny. How would an outsider see the chaotic United States of the 1850’s?

Philip Schaff was a young German theologian who was dispatched to Pennsylvania in 1844 by the German Reformed Church in response to a plea from the Pennsylvania Synod of that church, which wanted an accredited and learned “Doktor” to teach historical and exegetical theology in a budding backwoods seminary at Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. To the orderly German mind of that day America looked like an utter wilderness of confused and conflicting religious sects, and one of Schaffs colleagues, baffled in the attempt to understand what was going on, cried out: “God forgive Christopher Columbus for having discovered America!” But Schaff came to America, taught at Mercersburg and later at Union Theological Seminary, and established himself as one of the greatest of ecclesiastical historians.

In 1854 he revisited Berlin and there delivered lectures on the state of things in America. These were subsequently made into a book, which is now being reprinted with editing and an introduction by Perry Miller— America: A Sketch of Its Political, Social and Religious Character —and this book shows how a German scholar appraised America at the moment when the nation was stumbling forward to its moment of greatest crisis.

Much of the book deals with the contentions, differentiation, and activities of the various religious denominations in the America of that day and is naturally of interest only to a specialized audience. But Schaff’s size-up of the strange new society of which he had become a part is still worth reading; for he could see something prodigious taking shape underneath the conflict of voices and of interests, and he believed that what he saw was nothing less than the development of a vital force which would provide the world with leadership.